Writing Reality: Fictional Haibun Stories

The haibun has come a long way in recent years. Bald narrations of country walks, rendered in flat, deadpan prose, and enlivened only by their haiku (“diamonds in mud banks”) are now mercifully few--though still occasionally published. For surely the least a reader can expect is a bit of literary talent in the prose--something to fire the imagination and stir the feelings?

It is increasingly appreciated that mere reportage of experience is not enough if we are truly in the business of literature. Even the humblest haiku moment is not usually just picked up from the ground but needs some polishing before being put into print. How much more so is this true of a complex thing like a haibun. Not only is well-burnished imagery required, but also some thematic shaping to a purpose (unless it is very short). Thus there is no need to report things just because they happened if they are irrelevant and needlessly inflate the narrative (“less is more”). Everything needs trimming and shaping to give expression to the underlying inspiration that moves the writing.

Anthologies like Contemporary Haibun bear witness to the stylistic and thematic variety of haibun today--surreal, stream-of-consciousness and so on, but all nonetheless inspired by the haiku family tradition. One possible new direction is the haibun as short story. It may be argued that such a departure into the fiction of “imagined reality” is a betrayal of tradition, whether it be in the “desk haiku” (as opposed those springing from “lived experience”) or the invented prose narrative. And yet experience may be lived no less vividly, and be no less “real”, in a dream, in the reading of a striking piece of literature, or through our own imaginative creations. Thus, for Proust, after a three thousand page search, past places, people and events only exist as vividly in our minds as they did before our eyes after we have recreated them in our imagination. Such recreation may be a profoundly cathartic experience, as in the haibun of recollection.

Moreover language itself is no longer understood as a representation of reality. On the contrary, since what is known as “the linguistic turn” in twentieth century Western thought, it is language that is seen as shaping experience. In the West we owe this insight most notably to Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Derrida, but it was anticipated many centuries earlier by two great Buddhist thinkers - Nagarjuna and Dogen.

Published forth into the world our haiku and haibun are no inert things. They have their own lives, interacting with each reader in a process of mutual projection and thereby creating a new reality. Haiku challenge our accustomed mode of experience, either by unusual and striking imagery which takes us unaware, or, more powerfully, by a disjunction of images (kireji) which throw our customary perceptions out of gear, waking us to a fleeting but liberative insight. In a conventional short story the plot, characters and descriptions in some way move the reader, but they do so substantially within that customary mode of experience. But in an effective haibun what is most significant is what is left unsaid or darkly suggested, hanging in the air as ambiguity, allusiveness and maybe even paradox. The reassuring, but limiting, solidity of what passes as reality becomes elusive. Nothing is quite what it seems, and even the inanimate may take on a life of its own. This will be signalled most evidently in the haiku, But it will also spring from the play between haiku and prose, from the haiku-like prose itself, and from the overall conception of the piece. The effect lies beyond the externalities of the story, and is in that sense “anti-story”. (Much the same may be said of Beckett, Chekhov, Joyce, and other exemplary short story writers). Noteworthy also is the concern of haibun, like haiku, to show rather than to tell. This means, for example, that emotions must be expressed metaphorically, through the imagery. And this, again, contributes to an open-ended effect which leaves a lot of space for the reader's imagination.

From the side of the short story here is a remarkable parallel taken from Elizabeth Fallaize's introduction to the “Oxford Book of French Sort Stories” (p.xvi):

Most short story writers strive for the utmost economy of means, scaling down plot developments and stripping out all unnecessary detail …The reading pause which naturally occurs at the end of the story is a rich and fertile place, often the goal to which the whole story is geared …The short story characteristically creates a surprise effect at the very last moment, causing the reader to stop short, to reconsider what has gone before, or simply to laugh out loud. A paradoxical situation results: the reader feels from the beginning that the author is in charge and knows exactly where he or she is headed; on the otherhand, a great deal is of necessity left to the reader's imagination, and the mechanism which forces us out of the story at the end and onto the terrain of reflection creates a strong interaction between writer and reader...

“Travellers”, in my collection The Parsley Bed, is a good example of a haibun which is also a short story. Various minor characters are introduced on a long transnational railway journey and whether with novels, dreams or reverie, “they each manage to be somewhere else”. The atmosphere is built up, leading to an amorous encounter between the narrator and a mysterious femme fatale.

In the stream

the fallen moon

broken shards of light

The surprise climax echoes this haiku in that on arrival the lady is arrested and handcuffed. So much for the story line. But the amorous encounter is wordless, leaving readers to make of it what they will. And the piece as a whole is an allegory, proclaimed by the sign hanging above the sleeping Controller:

A large I

hangs in the air

awaiting the question

The text of “Travellers” can be found on www.redthreadhaiku.org, as also “Marsh's Pool” -- another instructive example of the fictional haibun story.

Although in the haibun literature personal stories (that is, autobiographical episodes) are quite common, fictional ones are rare. The Parsley Bed is unusual in that 9 out of the 33 haibun are invented stories (plus 5 personal stories). More typical is the current volume 8 of the annual anthology Contemporary Haibun, where 23 of the 63 haibun are, arguably, personal stories, and there appear to be no fictional ones. There is at least one piece narrating a fictitious experience, but I have only rated as stories where there is some sufficiently evolving theme -- a question of degree and of personal judgement.

Nevertheless there are in the haibun literature as a whole a number of indubitably fictional stories. David Cobb's recent collection Business in Eden includes two. One of these, “Withdrawing”, is about a graceful, voluntary exit from life. On the original draft which he sent me the author wrote that “you will gather from this that I am at times interested in expressing the realism of 'imagined realities' in a fairly adventurous way.” Arwyn Evans has told two or three good stories spun from regional Welsh folk myths, and other British haibunists occasionally come up with fictitional stories. Across the Atlantic William Ramsey and Michael McClintock come readily to mind as haibun story tellers. For a fine example of Ramsey's work see his “Buying a Soul”, on the Contemporary Haibun Online website (under “Acceptance Criteria”).

Given a little research I have no doubt that an attractive anthology of fictional haibun stories could be compiled. Certainly they make for wonderful public story-telling sessions. And I believe there would be a welcome from the short story fraternity. For example, Dafydd Prys, editor of the new Welsh short story magazine Blue Tattoo, has assured me:

I think the role of Blue Tattoo is to expand the possibilities of the short story in Wales. We have a tradition of obviously very tight writing here and I believe within this, the haibun sits alongside quite well. Paradoxically of course it is within its constriction that the haibun finds its 'freedom' which enables it great versatlitiy. In other words, I'd definitely consider the haibun for inclusion in Blue Tattoo.

Thus the haibun now has a potential relationship not only with the poetry community, as prose poetry, but also with fiction writing, as short story. However, it is worth emphasising that no haibun can primarily achieve its effect as haibun through its story line alone, which is no more than a container. But a good story can, nonetheless, make a worthwhile contribution to the overall success of the piece.

Grateful acknowledgement “Contemporary Haibun Online” ( 3 (3) September 2007) in which this was first published.